SPRINGFIELD — The 2017 Census of Agriculture confirms and contradicts some perceptions in Illinois.
The percentage of livestock vs. crop sales has not changed in the five-year period from 2012 to 2017. That may surprise some who believe livestock production numbers are declining in Illinois, says Mike Doherty, Illinois Farm Bureau economist and policy analyst.
Another notable number shows a slowdown in the growth of mega-farms, which drew attention in the 2012 census. In the 2017 report, released this spring, the number of large farms grew by only 190 to total 2,660. In contrast, the number of the smallest farms (between 1 and 9 acres) grew by 2,120 to almost 8,000.
Farms under 10 acres include a variety of enterprises, from hobby farms to vegetable enterprises and hog operations, some with employees that have an economic impact on their communities, says Mark Schleusener, Illinois state statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The 2017 ag census shows family farms still dominate the state. In McLean and Bureau counties, for example, 94% of the farms are family farms.
To Doherty, this shows health and vitality in the family farm.
“The traditional soybean and corn farm (in Illinois) is highly survivable, at least in these five years (2012-17),” he says.
Doherty also noted that USDA programs, including insurance options, are used by farm of all sizes. The same goes for technology — farms of all sizes are using technological advancements to their benefit.
“Tech is also size-neutral,” Doherty says.
Illinois leads the nation in several areas, including having the most participants in the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
In all, 78% of those eligible responded to the census in this state, Schleusener says.
It is a “fantastic” source of information, says Doherty. “No other report we get is for every county.”
On June 28, NASS released the census data calculated according to congressional districts. At a time when many lawmakers are far removed from the farm, it is an advantage for decision-makers to have this information at their fingertips, Schleusener says.
Such information is being used for discussion on rural internet access, for example.
It also gives people something to celebrate in Illinois, Doherty says. In 2017 Illinois ranked No. 1 in soybeans with 36,581 farms covering 10.6 million acres. The state is also No. 1 in pumpkins with 472 farms and 17,399 acres and in horseradish with 27 farms on 1,737 acres.
The state is second in corn production and top crop sales and fourth in hog inventory with more than 5 million hogs.
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One of the values of the census is that it is a detailed breakdown of size — by farm acreage, economics, type of commodity — and operator demographics — age, gender and race — Schleusener says.
The data details where the $17 billion in sales from farms is distributed, and it indicates areas of growth.
“In 2017, the total organic sales more than doubled percentage-wise. It’s the fastest growing sub sector,” Doherty says. “There were $60 million in organic sales in Illinois in 2017.”
The number of organic farms is also rising, he says.
“With tough commodity prices, farmers are looking for value-added, and this is one way to go,” Schleusener says.
Still, organic farms make up less than 1% of the farms in most counties. Other states, including California, Iowa and Wisconsin, have more organic growers, he says.
Because of the interest in organics, a new NASS survey is being prepared to get more information.
This census re-designed some questions regarding gender to get a more accurate picture of who is farming.
“It confirmed what we all knew,” Doherty says — there are more women farming. Women made up almost 30% of the 116,417 farmers in Illinois in 2017.
The survey counted four decision-makers on the farm, which often include women. More men report making agronomic decisions, women often lead bookkeeping duties and both sexes report equal involvement with succession planning, Schleusener says.
The number of women operators is significantly higher than the last census. However, Schleusener cautions against comparing 2012 to 2017 numbers because the changes in the wording make the comparison inaccurate.
The new census also tried to capture young producers and new producers, Schleusener says. It shows 11,102 producers under age 35 on 8,668 farms.
“In some cases they are beginning or transition across generations,” he says.
New producers (starting in the last 10 years) have an average age of 45.6. They often are not directly out of college and have worked off-farm for a number of years, Schleusener says. Their farms are usually a little smaller than the Illinois average of 372 acres, coming in at 258 acres.
The average age of all Illinois farmers is 58. That’s increased by two years. The rise may be related to technology cutting into the physical labor required, allowing farmers to work more years, Doherty says.
However, the average age of farmers is similar to that of family-run, intergenerational businesses in other sectors. The concern that farmers are all getting old and there will be no one to replace them is “overblown,” Doherty says.